A couple days ago I got to play the boardgame Descent for the first time. The first impression it gives is of being a huge boardgame. The box is enormous and is packed with interesting stuff. The production values are superb in all cases – this is a well-made, complex, crunchy game.
The heart of the game is a dungeon that the Overlord constructs on the table. The Overlord is in charge of the dungeon, and it is the Overlord’s job to kill the player-characters. The Overlord does this by spending Threat as the game progresses, using Threat as a currency to purchase traps and monsters as well as special abilities for himself. For example, during the course of the game, our Overlord would do things like spend 18 Threat to add one Power Die to the attack roll of his monsters (more on that), or spend 20 Threat to change the game rules so that every time we opened a treasure chest, he got 5 more Threat.
We had four player-characters for the game. We got to choose from an enormous stack of player-characters in three general categories: Melee, Ranged and Magic, each category corresponding to the main way you deal damage with that character. In our game, we had one Melee (a half-orc), one Missile (an elven ranger-type), one Magic (a human-looking person) and one hybrid, my character, who was part Melee and part Magic (an elf dervish). Each player-character card has its own stats and abilities listed out, and you also select a number of abilities from different decks – a Melee deck, Missile deck and Magic deck. As the game progresses, you can also improve your hero’s stats and buy new abilities.
The purpose of going into the dungeon, of course, is the treasure, and Descent has treasure cards in heaps, categorized as Copper, Silver and Gold treasure. I can vouch that Gold treasure is very powerful and very satisfying to use on monsters the Overlord throws at you. Speaking of which, each monster has its own heavy plastic mini, quite detailed and up to Fantasy Flight’s usual standard of quality. The game comes with piles of minis to start, and each expansion has even more minis – probably for not much more than an equivalent number of WotC minis; but with Descent, you get a whole lot more for your money than just cool little monsters (which are perfectly sized, by the way, to use with other D20 games).
A lot of things in the game are represented with high-quality full-color (everything in the game is both, basically) cardboard markers – hearts for health (had us thinking of Zelda), gold sweat-drops for fatigue points, squares for conditions (like Poisoned, Stunned, On Fire, etc.) and for increased character stats, images for potions and so on. All of these just get stacked on your character card or around your character on the table so everything is always very clear. All of the book-keeping takes place using these tokens, making everything quicker and easier.
Descent also has a special set of dice, customized for the game. Each face has a lot of information in many cases. There are basic dice that tell you whether you hit – a red one for melee, a blue one for ranged and a white one for magic. There’s a 1 in 6 chance you’ll miss with each. Then there are yellow dice, which are often rolled to add range inrements, and green dice, which more often add damage. Finally, black power dice add range, damage and surges depending on which side you get.
Damage is measured in a number of small hearts on the side of a die -the most I saw was three. Surges are little lightening bolts that function like action points – they increase your abilities when they come up on the dice, boosting attacks and doing other cool things depending on your skills. Range just comes up as numbers, from 0 to 3 I believe, and those numbers tell you how far away a target can be that you hit with the attack.
Once you’re in the dungeon with your characters, you have a lot of options. You have three basic kinds of moves that you declare when your turn starts – an Advance, which means you move and then attack, a Battle maneuver, which means you attack twice, and a Run, which is a double move. You can also assign what are in effect special held actions. You can Guard, which means you can interrupt the Overlord’s turn to attack anything that comes in range. You can Dodge, which lets you force the Overlord to reroll any dice you want him or her to when they’re attacking you (this is one of my favorite abilities in the whole game). You can Rest, which lets you recover all of your fatigue. There is a fourth option that I frankly forget, unfortunately.
In short, I’m going to give the game 5 out of 5 stars. Yes, that’s right, 5. The game is very well-designed, very well-balanced, very well-made and nice to look at, high-quality in its construction, crunchy and detailed but still pretty simple to teach (not quite as hard as D20, but with at least as many fun crunchy bits), and does exactly what it sets out to do. It puts you through a dungeon-crawl that is basically as good as dungeon-crawls get. Frankly, for all of the variables and fiddly-bits, the game went very smoothly. Designing it was a daunting task, which Fantasy Flight has accomplished with gusto. This game just kept impressing me from beginning to end.
If you want to run a dungeon-crawl, play this game. If you want to run a board-game that has loads of fun details and is also competitive between players and Overlord, play this game. If you like good-looking stuff with miniatures and fighting and tactics, ditto.
I would also say that this game could be a great way to introduce someone who already gets board games to a D20 style game. It can be a hybrid, and there’s as much chance to roleplay as there is in your average D&D game – that is, the rules don’t help you do it, but the setting and situation encourage it.
The only person I wouldn’t recommend this game to is someone who doesn’t want anything more complicated than Settlers of Catan. If you want a simple game, play chess.